Nekomonogatari Kuro is a prequel OAV that tells the story of what happens during the Golden Week immediately prior to the events of Bakemonogatari. The focus here is all on Hanekawa Tsubasa and her original synthesis with the cat demon Sawari Neko. Throughout the final two episodes, the characters (including Tsubasa herself) attempt to suss out her nature and her motivations via a whole lot of expository dialogue. However, it is my contention that, rather than getting a clearer picture of who Tsubasa actually is, we get a couple of competing ideas of who the characters (including Tsubasa herself) think she is. I happen to think that these constructed identities ignore crucial information and, therefore, are inaccurate. In this piece, I will illustrate the casts’ interpretations of her character, and then I will provide my own thoughts on who Tsubasa Hanekawa is.
Spoilers, I guess.
***DISCLAIMER: THIS POST REPRESENTS MY VIEWS AFTER SEEING ONLY BAKE, NISE AND NEKO.***
Suggested Soundtrack for Reading – Jamie Cullum & Gregory Porter “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”
On your first viewing of Neko, I think Oshino’s verbal portrait of Tsubasa comes across as one of its most jarring and unsettling elements. He returns from visiting her recently-injured parents with quite a dark impression of her. His view stems from the Hanekawas’ recounting of a recent incident in their household. Tsubasa’s father strikes her in the face, and, instead of getting angry or distressed, she looks up at him with emotionless eyes and says, “No, Father, you shouldn’t hit a girl’s face.”
Based on this report, Oshino paints a terrifying picture of Tsubasa. No ordinary human girl, he argues, can display such a “disgusting” level of natural goodness. The incident described above is indicative of a being whose righteousness is so great that it harms all who come into contact with it. Living with such a creature, says Oshino, would be a waking nightmare because your own sins would continually be thrown into sharp relief against her inherent, overwhelming goodness. This angelic monster is more frightening than any run-of-the-mill demon Oshino has encountered because human beings lack the ability to comprehend it.
Perhaps Oshino’s most repulsive claim about Tsubasa is that he maintains that her misfortune is her own fault because she doesn’t play the part of a human very well. The idea is that, since she is more-than-human, she should be aware of the degree of influence that her power holds. Essentially, she ought to be aware that her goodness will offend mere humans, and their violent reaction is no surprise. So, if Tsubasa occasionally threw tantrums or yelled at her parents, maybe broke a few rules from time to time, they wouldn’t feel bad enough about themselves to be compelled to hit her. This viewpoint is a real winner.
I guess you could try to argue that Oshino was just constructing this image of Tsubasa in order to get Araragi fired up for his fight against the Sawari Neko…but why? Why would he need to do this? The kid is plenty motivated to help his friend. Araragi has proven himself to be a character of sufficient resolve; Oshino knows as much. What is more, our protagonist already has his sword in hand when the guru arrives on the scene. This argument seems shaky to me, at best.
Hottie Seeking Sympathy
We know from Bakemonogatari that Araragi saves Tsubasa from her predicament with Sawari Neko. We know, but it’s still fun getting there. What were a brief flashback and a few lines of dialogue in Bake become a gorgeously-animated, fully-realized climactic confrontation in Neko. During this scene, Araragi delivers a monologue on who he believes Tsubasa to be.
Before going into that, though, I should note the following: Oshino does not claim that his Angelic Monster theory is true, but neither does he say it is false. Rather, the urban sage presents this view as a single interpretation among many possible, equally valid ones. But, Oshino’s statement begs the question, how do you choose an interpretation? Whichever one is most convenient for you is the one you will choose, according to Oshino. Araragi rejects this schema. He insists that Tsubasa’s parents are in the wrong, that she isn’t who they claim she is.
Monogatari has established that Araragi is willing to do many things for Tsubasa, but one thing he will not do is pity her. He seems to believe that most, if not all, of the entire episode with Tsubasa and the “harmful cat” has been an elaborate attempt by Tsubasa to get people to feel sorry for her. She is a willing participant is all of it. Certainly, Araragi is factually accurate in stating that Tsubasa accepts the Sawari Neko into herself. She is neither unwillingly nor unknowingly possessed by it. But, is it all an appeal for pity?
Here, we come to a key idiosyncrasy in Araragi’s view. Unlike Oshino, Araragi never comes out and says that he thinks Tsubasa is not human, though his rejection of the Angelic Monster theory seems to imply as much. So, since she is human, she is not responsible for her abuse (a real triumph for Araragian thought). But, she is responsible for being happy in the midst of her suffering.
More than any other character in the cast, Araragi knows the harsh realities of Tsubasa’s life, yet, he tells her outright to stop using Sawari Neko as a crutch. Instead of closing her eyes and relying upon an apparition to temporarily fix things, Araragi urges Tsubasa to face her problems and take independent steps toward resolution. In what struck me as a particularly selfish portion of his speech, Araragi reminds Tsubasa that there are people who have it much worse than she and still retain their happiness. People hold their heads up and get on with it, he says.
One could claim that Araragi is lying, that he is saying all of this to entrap the Sawari Neko. I’ve always found him to be an extremely honest character, though, so I’m hesitant to attribute dishonest intentions to him here, when it would be convenient. It appears equally plausible to me that he knows he can lure the demon into a trap just by being honest with Tsubasa.
Now, onto Tsubasa’s view of herself, a view not too dissimilar to Oshino’s Angelic Monster idea. It’s important to point out right away that I believe statements given by “Black Hanekawa” (the intentional fusion of Tsubasa with Sawari Neko) can rightfully be attributed to Tsubasa. They may be things she would not normally say, but the fact that Tsubasa responds to Araragi’s text message in the way that she does indicates that she is firmly in control of Black Hanekawa.
Tsubasa believes she is not normal. This notion is fundamental to the way she sees herself. In the third episode of Neko, Tsubasa describes an event that encapsulates her abnormality: She and Araragi discover a dead cat near the road, and she buries it. This action is not committed due to any feelings of pity or sadness for the deceased animal. On the contrary, Sawari Neko takes an interest in Tsubasa precisely because she is devoid of emotion during the burial. The young honor student geso through the trouble of burying a dead animal just because it is the proper thing to do according to established convention.
It seems that Tsubasa sees herself as a sort of “moral machine,” someone who always chooses the right thing to do automatically because it is what convention dictates should be done. On this view, she never does anything because she feels it is right; rather, her decision-making process turns on a single question: Is this the rule? If yes, then I will do it; if no, then I will not. The Moral Machine is similar to The Angelic Monster insofar as both conceptions have Tsubasa always making the correct choice automatically and without emotion figuring into the desicion. However, one picture presents her as a heavenly being, while the other claims she’s nothing more than a base machine. Since she doesn’t think highly of herself, Tsubasa naturally gravitates toward self-identifying as a “lower” being.
Tsubasa believes the only way she can break from an endless cycle of automatic processes is by choosing to allow the Sawari Neko into herself and giving in to the will of the feline apparition. Now, her making this choice in the first place shatters the truth of the Moral Machine theory. Deciding to integrate that level of chaos into oneself seems to run counter to convention, doesn’t it?
So, here’s where I set out my own “right and true” theory…only I’m not going to do that. The truth is, I don’t have a holistic, overarching story about who Tsubasa Hanekawa is, who she is in total. I do, however, have a clear idea of who she has presented herself to be in the franchise thus far and also knowledge of some significant, traumatic events in her life. In short, I don’t know everything, I only know what I know. Thus, according to what I know, I will outlines some thoughts on a single facet of Tsubasa’s identity. I do not believe that this facet defines her, just that it invalidates the alternate definitions above.
Given what they know about her, I find it incredible that other characters could entertain the idea that Tsubasa is not human based only on the fact that she doesn’t show emotion when most people would. Give me a break. Tsubasa is a victim of horrible neglect and egregious physical and emotional abuse. Oshino finds it ‘disgusting” the way that Tsubasa responded to her father? Know what’s disgusting, Meme? Parents who beat their children. And, anyone who believes that the “incident” discussed in Neko is the only time it has happened is just simply naive. Sure, Tsubasa says it only happened one time, but the abused always minimize their abuse. She has such a low opinion of herself that it’s possible that she believes she deserves her abuse. Also, those who have seen Neko has seen Bake and can remember the big bandage on her cheek during episode 11 of the latter.
Tsubasa has been neglected by every adult in her life. I’m on record stating that parents in Bakemonogatari to be fucking terrible. Well, the trend continues. Unwanted, Tsubasa is passed from parent to step-parent. By the beginning of Neko neither of the adults she is “living” with are actually related to her. I put the word living in quotes because, in the house she currently claims to reside in, Tsubasa does not have a room. The only discernible evidence that she stays there is that her school uniform, a single school uniform, hangs on a coat rack in the kitchen. Throughout the show, Tsubasa makes statements like, “I could cut off all my hair, and [my parents] wouldn’t notice.” To me, such assertions don’t allude to parents who live cowering under the weight of her righteousness, they paint a clear picture of two people who don’t give a shit.
Alright, where is all this going? Well, I think most of the above is known by Oshino and Araragi (certainly by Black Hanekawa herself), so I find it tremendously frustrating when they contextualize Tsubasa’s behavior in such needlessly complex and ultimately baffling ways. Taking into account what she’s suffered, it is no surprise to me that her emotions have deadened and she instinctively acts in accordance with convention. When horrible things are happening to you, especially when you’re young, you develop survival mechanisms to cope with the pain. Of course Tsubasa does every single thing meticulously right. Of course she doesn’t get angry, distressed or otherwise emotional in front of her parents. She is an abused, child desperately seeking affirmation. Her behavior makes sense when you think about it as the behavior of a child methodically trying to avoid punishment. If she acts on her feelings, she may get hit. And, what good have her feelings done her anyway? Did they keep her parents together? These are the (probably) subconscious thoughts going through Tsubasa’s mind. What Oshino sees as innate goodness, I see as hollowness.
And then, there’s Araragi. Ara-fucking-ragi. How dare he tell Tsubasa to suck it up and get on with it? His monologue demonstrates an uncharacteristic lack of awareness and empathy on his part. I understand he wants to communicate to her the idea that she can still have happiness in life despite her awful circumstances, but telling someone in the throes of emotional pain that “other people have it worse than you” is unforgivably stupid. The abused is not trying hard enough. With friends like this, it’s no wonder that Tsubasa felt she had to abandon her traditional survival mechanisms and release her pain by means of voluntary demon possession. This choice provides tangible proof that she is neither righteous heavenly beast nor perfect robot. Those beings would continue their pattern of behavior, since it is what they ought to be doing. Tsubasa knows that so very much is wrong, and she wants change in any way possible.
Who is Hanekawa Tsubasa, then? She’s not a monster, a machine or someone unnecessarily seeking pity. She’s a hurting soul who is crying out for emotional support. I hope that Hitagi, the Araragis, anyone will provide that for her going forward.